An Exposé of America’s Low-Wage Workplaces

Book review: On the Clock, by Emily Guendelsberger (Amazon / Book Depository)

When the newspaper she worked for closed in 2015, journalist Emily Guendelsberger used the opportunity to pursue a project she’d long been interested in. Over the next two years she worked in some of America’s common, controversial low-wage jobs to see what conditions were like, how they affected workers physically and psychologically, and if living on the incomes was possible. She makes some rules: she wouldn’t hide her journalism experience or anything about her background, and if asked about them or her motivations, she wouldn’t lie. She was never asked.

It’s a followup of sorts to Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 Nickel and Dimedupdated for the era of workplace technological advancements intended to increase efficiency and worker productivity but without consideration for human workers. While corporations eagerly await total automation, jobs like these want people who can work like robots, with “as few needs outside of work as robots”. They structure them accordingly, with few breaks or sympathy for issues like sickness, deaths, childcare, physical limitations, or the need for scheduling flexibility.

Guendelsberger lacks the sociological background Ehrenreich brought to her project, but she makes up for it with wit, powerful observations, and well-incorporated research that explores ideas from Henry Ford, with his assembly-line structure still influencing Amazon and McDonald’s today; and Frederick Taylor, whose analysis of timing and productivity led to the micromanagement and efficiency calculations utilized by the companies she worked for.

Her first stop is an Amazon fulfillment center in Indiana, just across the border from Kentucky. She notes many rumors around conditions here, but “everything written about Amazon’s blue-collar workers comes from a very small amount of original reporting.” She gets a job as a picker, which requires walking 15-20 miles a day in a mind-numbingly unstimulating atmosphere. It’s physically painful and Amazon’s attitude towards workers and their basic needs, including bathroom breaks, is that they’re disposable temps until machines can take over, basically.

The way Guendelsberger processes information is not only entertaining but powerfully effective. While watching The Muppet Christmas Carol with the family hosting her during her Amazon stint, she observes, “Scrooge literally has a better time-off policy than Amazon.”

Her next stint is at Convergys, a call center conglomerate in North Carolina, where she trained as a customer service rep for AT&T. The stress of the job was immense, and breaks inadequate for dealing with the emotional and psychological torture that accompanies being harangued by customers. A colleague explains that “the stress of her job caused her to develop digestive problems. ‘Even though I went to the doctor and brought a note explaining what was wrong, my supervisor still insisted on following me into the bathroom to ‘make sure’ I really did have diarrhea every single time’… She would stand outside the stall door and listen to me shit.'”

Last is a busy McDonald’s in downtown San Francisco, where even a raised hourly rate isn’t enough to live in one of America’s most expensive cities. Here she endures injuries in addition to abusive customers — some known for getting physical, including with hot coffee. At each location she works diligently until reaching her breaking point, and portrays her coworkers and their conditions sympathetically. Their lives and reasons for taking or sticking with jobs are revealing — most have families to support, are attending school, recovering from addiction, one even attempts home dental surgery — twice — since she can’t afford an ER visit or time off work. It is grim.

An argument will certainly arise that Guendelsberger is privileged to pursue this experiment and walk away. I think she handled this as best she could. She acknowledges her privilege in education, a dual-income marriage, and lack of children, all of which means she can leave when others are trapped.

But for one, there was a greater cause in that she’s delivering a strong message by giving a well-documented insider look and placing her experiences, and those of her coworkers, in the context of technological advancement — how micromanagement and efficiency technology have been leading to this and will only get worse unless we refuse to continue down this path.

Second, she argues that no one deserves this, regardless of whether they can afford to walk away or not, that we all have to demand better regardless of circumstances. Although there aren’t many suggestions for improvement beyond that — just that we must reject rock-bottom standards and demand higher ones across the board.

God, you’re so spoiled, I think to myself, feeling worse than ever. You don’t have any real responsibilities…not like everyone else here. You never learned to control your temper because you’ve never really had to. 

But that tiny, furious voice hisses, No! That’s bullshit! Nobody should have to trade her last scrap of dignity for her family. This isn’t how things should be. This isn’t right.

She complains about commute times, which are usually ~45 minutes. That’s been typical, perhaps even low, in the major cities I’ve worked in. She laments having to budget time into her commute for traffic or public transportation delays and needing to be at work a few minutes earlier than shifts started. That seems pretty par for the course with most jobs. Her newspaper work was flexible, but I’ve found that lateness is generally a big issue most places. Griping about “unpaid minutes of padding” doesn’t feel as relevant as other objectively awful conditions, although her complaints about frustratingly short break times and draconian penalties for lateness were well-founded. The conditions around doing anything wrong at one of these jobs are all draconian, really, and often catch-22s.

Insightful, detailed, and makes quite an impact. It feels exhausting to consider where we can go from here, but calling this out is an important start and this book is an incendiary conversation starter. 4/5

On the Clock:
What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How it Drives America Insane

by Emily Guendelsberger
published July 16, 2019 by Little, Brown

Amazon / Book Depository

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13 thoughts on “An Exposé of America’s Low-Wage Workplaces

  1. Now I HAVE to read this. I live in North Carolina and I used to work for Convergys, formerly Sitel, circa 2004-2005. While no one followed me to the bathroom, they were annoying taskmasters, expecting complete devotion to “customer care.” I remember having to be in my seat, ready to accept calls when the shift began–no exceptions. I also remember 30 minute lunches, mandatory overtime/shift extensions. I never stayed for mandatory overtime, at the time my son was in daycare and they weren’t gonna help me pay the fee for a late pick up, so they could kiss my ass.

    All in all, I remember it being awful. Ughhhhh

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I would LOVE to hear what you think of it having worked there, it sounded like a hell on earth!!! I worked in a call center once too but it was taking campground and national park reservations, so although we had stressy situations, screamers, and some unpleasant conditions (we also had 30 minutes for lunch and they got annoyed about how much time we took on bathroom breaks but no one followed us, is that legal?!) it was comparatively blissful to what that place sounded like. She also mentioned that they’re supposed to have at least 30 seconds between calls but it was usually more like 10, which seems impossible when you’re sometimes trying to compose yourself. And all of these programs and ancient systems that had to be running in tandem, it was making me anxious just reading it. The majority of her training group had already left by the time she did, too. What a nightmare. AND she said 1 in 25 jobs in the US is in a call center, even despite all of the international outsourcing, which surprised me. I hope you do read it, I’d be so interested in hearing your perspective!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. In some states, they do not legally have to give you a bathroom break. It’s a “perk” of the job to be able to use the restroom. From the Indiana (where I live now) government website: “Indiana state law does not generally require employers to provide rest breaks, meal breaks, or breaks for other purposes to adult employees.”

        While I get what Barbara Ehrenreich was trying to do with her writing, I found her sarcasm often got in the way, such to the point that when I taught that book to freshmen they had a hard time discerning in some places if she was serious or sarcastic. I personally don’t think it’s enough for a reporter to do one job for a few weeks and then write what they saw; rather, I’d like to see them do the same type of job at multiple locations, each location for at least two months. Typically in rhetoric, we don’t say one example of something we experience is definitive. BUT, I get what Ehrenreich (and by extension Guendelsberger) is going for and appreciate the work being done.

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      2. Wow. I’m shocked that bathroom breaks are legally considered a perk.

        I think the author structured it quite well. She worked at the places longer than a few weeks and put a lot of focus on her coworkers and their experiences, some of whom had worked on-and-off stints at these jobs and similar ones, which seems to be common as opposed to working at one place for much longer. That’s part of the story — how difficult it is to endure this work for longer periods, so they cycle through warehouses, fast food, call center, repeat. Her coworkers’ stories are as much a part of this as what she observes, so it doesn’t feel like a narrow focus or entirely anecdotal (plenty of statistics, history, research, etc. too.)

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      3. Oh, wonderful! I might check this book out then, as I was somewhat disappointed in Ehrenreich’s investigative journalism. Another book I want to get to is Maid, which I know is making the rounds right now. I like that it will focus on one occupation.

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  2. Putting this on my TBR. Was aware of course of Amazon’s bad reputation as an employer. Here in the UK a company called Sports Direct has had terrible publicity about treatment of its employees including limiting toilet breaks. Unbelievable. Important that customers are made aware of what goes on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t heard of that company. It’s amazing what they get away with when so many people have horror stories about working in these places and being treated terribly. It seems like a simple point that the author makes but maybe it’s really the most worthwhile one, that refusing to accept these conditions is the way to change it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is my worst nightmare as we celebrate an economy because of its low unemployment rate without looking at the reality behind that statistic. Our economy is NOT great when you peel back the masking tape covering those numbers. It scares and saddens me deeply. These are more troubling times than we think because there aren’t any watchdogs anymore, at least not under this administration.

    Thanks for featuring this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point well made! It bothers me too. She tells a story here of a coworker at a San Francisco McDonald’s who works multiple jobs but still has to share her two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the city with roommates in order to afford it. She had a small daughter so no choice but to keep going this way. So yes, she’s employed, even over-employed since she’s working far beyond full-time hours in multiple jobs, but she’s treading water. You can’t even save up enough in a situation like this to uproot and replant somewhere else that’s more affordable, IF that’s what you even want! (considering the options and professional or educational opportunities or connections that keep many people tied to big cities that are steadily pricing out lower earners.) That is so disheartening and upsetting. A low unemployment rate just isn’t so simple. Not that you would hear any of that nuance from this administration, who think that backbreaking, lung-destroying work in coal mines is a desirable employment option that we can’t let die. It’s maddening.

      Liked by 1 person

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